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Images of Beauty

Psalm 65

On our way out to Virginia Beach this summer, we drove up into the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a good stopping point half-way from Kentucky, and, well, it was in the mountains. We stayed at a hotel in Roanoke, and I woke up early and drove a mile or two down to an overpass and a creek bed. I found a little lot for some business that wouldn’t be open for a couple of hours and picked my way down to the edge of the creek. There, I sat and read and listened and took some photographs as the sun began to rise and the creek came to life.

After a while, I thought I heard someone yelling over the riffles of the creek in the direction of my minivan, so I thought I should check it out. I picked my way back up to the lot and found an absolutely apoplectic grizzled man who was incredibly angry at me. Through his anger and his cursing, the best I could tell he was convinced that I had parked in this lot so that I could go down underneath the overpass and do drugs. I tried to explain to him that I was just down there reading and sitting by the creek. But he was having none of it. In his mind, I was just a junkie and he couldn’t be persuaded otherwise. “Why would you go down there…there’s just a bunch of poison ivy!” When I politely explained that I walked around the poison ivy, it just made him madder.  I’ll never forget what he said, “You must be lying. No one would go down there just to read a book!”

Pretty soon, I realized I was not going to convince him otherwise, so I just told him I would leave and pulled out. He was still steaming as I pulled out and it wasn’t until later that I realized that the cap on my tire was missing and a third of the air was gone. He figured he had caught him a drug addict and wasn’t going to let him get away!

I went through a range of emotions as I drove away from this guy. At first I was scared of what he might do…stereotypes of mountain men in the hills of Virginia ran through my mind. Then, I was angry…what gives him the right to threaten me in the way that he did. After that, I just laughed…I tried to imagine the life that this real life Yosemite Sam must lead, spitting and cursing at anyone who gets within arm’s length.

But then I got sad for him. Sad for what it might mean to live that kind of life. Now, as far as I know, there are plenty of people who have gone under that overpass to do drugs by the creek.  He might have been completely right to assume the worst, and it is hard to know what he had seen or experienced. But I doubt it. And even if there were, it felt like it was a rather sad way to live. A way of cynicism and personal conquest. Of destruction and blunt power. Of bullying and bossing others around.

You won’t be surprised that those same folks lived around the time of the Psalmist, as well. The best we can tell, this psalm was written as a Temple song. It was a worship song written to be read or prayed or most likely sung during Temple worship. This means that it was meant to be a song of faith in Yahweh in contrast to the faith in other gods of the day, most specifically the god Baal. The worshippers of Baal and the priests of Baal were a lot like this Parking Lot Defender. Baal was a god who was associated with blunt power and virility and overpowering strength. He was often connected to the natural world, but in a way that tried to control it. The priests of Baal tried to bring rain through their prayers or encourage crop growth. They practiced the way of bullying and bossing and overpowering and conquest. The natural world was something to be ignored or overpowered, and the Baal worship was designed to encourage that clumsy and blunt power. It was a faith of authoritarianism and violence and cynical conquest.

It is unfortunate how many people choose to live this way! For this guy, the only thing that he could imagine that this creek bed could offer was a place to do drugs.  Seems silly, but it isn’t that far away from some individuals, and corporations, and politicians who seem to be just as ridiculous. It is sad and scary how many people see the natural world as either a) a waste of time or b) a resource to be mined…something to be taken by force. It is heartbreaking because their way of destruction and blunt power, of cynicism and conquest, of bullying and bossing, has had tremendous impacts on the natural world. It is scary how many real-life Yosemite Sam’s are out there right now, living lives of clumsy and blunt power, convinced that there is nothing in the natural world that is worthwhile—unless it brings a profit.

It is complex and complicated how intertwined we are with these priests of Baal. Tomorrow banks are closed in honor of a man who was just as caught up in these rules of conquest, of overpowering, and of destruction. It is hard to untangle the legacy of Christopher Columbus, but as Christians, we need to make sure we are following something different than the rules of Baal. Different than the rules of conquest and destruction.

And where do we find that “different?” In the pages of Scripture. For it was in the context of the priests and worship of Baal that the followers of Yahweh provided an alternative vision. Instead of conquest and destruction and blunt power, the psalmist leads Temple worship that was very different.

The first three verses or so are all about gratitude. God is the God of forgiveness, of deliverance, of salvation, and the psalmist wants to sing about it. She or he wants to sing about the goodness of God, with a heart of thanksgiving. Imagine how different that is than a priest of Baal who suggests that they have some kind of overpowering presence over the natural world. The psalmist’s alternate vision comes from an attitude of humility. They are thankful for what God has given as good and generous Creator. It is likely that this song was sung about this time of year: early in the harvest when the abundance of the earth begins to come from harvest. It is a thanksgiving feast song, like “All Things Now Living” or “Come, Ye Thankful People Come.” It is a song of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Then the psalmist moves to a different idea in verse 4: satisfaction. “We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.”  Satisfaction is a bit of foreign idea to us, isn’t it? We as good Americans are taught not to be satisfied, but push harder, take more, expect more, conquest and defeat. In short, we have been fed a healthy dose of the worship of Baal! The concept of satisfaction stands in sharp contrast to those rules. Now, the psalmist isn’t saying that we should be satisfied with injustice or satisfied with sin or satisfied with the brokenness of the world. But on a feast day when the looking at what we think we don’t have, perhaps we should enjoy the blessings we do have. “Count your many blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings, see what God has done.”

And finally, the rest of the psalm is a beautiful poem written with a heart of awe. I love what folks in the Two-Way said about this word this week. We over-use the word awe all the time. Like they laughed, what do we say when I get a parking place downtown…”that’s awesome!” Is it really? It that worthy of our awe? The psalmist suggests that we look to the natural world—not as a source of raw materials, or as something to be ignored—but as a source of awe. Look again at the language of the psalm—it is all about the natural world, about mountains and seas and valleys and rivers. There is an agricultural component here, too, but it is not a conquest model of the priests of Baal, but an “awe model” of worship and wonder at the ways God provides for God’s people.

Annie Dillard writes about these ideas in an essay titled “Intricacy.” Her basic point in the essay is to point out all of the ways that God has created intricacy in the world. She writes with exuberance about goldfish scales and longleaf pines and caterpillar heads. With each example, she makes an increasingly powerful point. In the natural world, there are plenty of examples which are profoundly intricate, obscenely complex, amazingly elaborate, even extravagant. In fact, she suggests, that all of this intricacy seems rather…unnecessary. There is no obvious point to all this extravagance except, as she writes, “the creator loves pizzazz!” Like the psalmist, she delights in this incredible beauty she sees around her. She writes all this in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In the chapter on Intricacy, she writes with all about all that she has seen just in the little creek outside her back door. Tinker Creek turns out to be for her this treasure trove of intricacy and extravagant beauty. In the natural world that she sees behind her back yard, she chooses to live a life of gratitude, of satisfaction, and of awe.

In a world of Baal worshippers, who either see nature as a waste of space or a raw material to be taken, we see differently. We see beauty. Like the psalmists, who saw beauty in creation in psalm after psalm after psalm. Like Jesus, who told his disciples to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Like Scriptural writers throughout the Bible who teach us to see with God-blessed eyes the beauty that surrounds us. Let us not be blind to the beauty in our midst.

There is more to the story than I shared at the beginning of the sermon. The night before I woke up early and got yelled at for doing drugs, I started to put two and two together and realized how close we were to Dillard’s Tinker Creek. In fact, that was the creek that I drove to—underneath the overpass—and this was the book that I was reading. I started to explain to my friend the connection—“Tinker Creek…Tinker Creek…get it?”—but I thought that perhaps he had not read a 45-year old book about goldfish scales and longleaf pines. Undaunted, I pulled up my map app and found another spot across town, where Tinker Creek ran parallel to a bike path with a park nearby. I made the drive and parked the car and found a rock to sit on, right next to the creek that Dillard wrote about. On a warm June morning, I began to read her chapter on Intricacy:

“A rosy, complex light fills my kitchen at the end of these lengthening June days…Reddened the light inclines into this valley over the green western mountains; it sifts between pine needles on northern slopes, and through all the mountain black-jack oak and haw, whose leaves are unclenching, one by one, and making an intricate, toothed and lobed haze.”

With a sense of awe, Dillard delights in all of the ways that the “pizzazz” of the Creator comes alive before her eyes. As I sat there, I found myself seeing the beauty that she saw. Not just through her words, and not just in the creek before me, but in all of God’s creation, in nature itself. What if we were to follow in her path? What would it look like for us to practice gratitude, satisfaction, and awe? May we learn to open our eyes to the beauty of God, and celebrate what we see in our midst!


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